With the election looming, New Mexico Senate candidates go toe-to-toe in debate

By Adam Evarts / New Mexico News Port

Democrat Ben Ray Luján and his Republican competitor Mark Ronchetti continued their race to fill the U.S. Senate seat soon to be vacated by the retiring Tom Udall, sparring on NMPBS television last Sunday night, as moderator Gene Grant posed questions from station viewers. 

NM’s COVID-19 future?

On the issue of whether COVID-19 was under control, or still posed a threat to New Mexicans, Ronchetti and Luján agreed the pandemic remained a serious threat, though they differed on how to combat the virus.

“We need to listen to the doctors and scientists and public health experts,” Luján said. “We have lost nearly 1,000 people alone here in New Mexico alone. President Trump has failed us from the beginning. He knew how bad it was, but he continued to spread misinformation. We need to respond to this unified as a country.”

“No question, this is a serious issue still,” Ronchetti said. 

A vocal supporter of President Trump’s handling of the outbreak, Ronchetti still noted that NM’s COVID crisis is growing. 

“Each day in New Mexico we are setting record numbers for new infections,” Ronchetti said. “We need to do a few things. First, we need to follow the science. We need to mask up and social distance. And we need to focus on those who are struggling to get by on a week to week basis with money. We need to give the people what they need to get going.”

See the entire debate here, courtesy NMPBS. 

Another round of stimulus checks?

One of the big-ticket issues concerning New Mexicans is whether there will be another round of federal stimulus checks. Predictably, the candidates split hairs on how to get New Mexicans help, or even if they should get any more help.

For Ronchetti, the solution lies in providing more support for local businesses.  

“We need another one, but we need to include some other things that were not in the last bill,” Ronchetti said. “Number one, we need liability protection for businesses that are using the money they receive the right way. We need to target hospitality and tourism who have been hit hard by this pandemic. We also need to help those businesses that are struggling to make their payments.” 

Like his Republican counterpart, Luján argued that more funding should be allocated to supporting businesses as they struggle to tread water during the pandemic.

“There needs to be another round of relief for the American people,” Luján said. “Direct payments of $1200 for individuals. Small payments, such as loans and grants, to help small businesses. Big grants that are going to help businesses in New Mexico and schools in New Mexico. We also need to help our local hospitals and use that money to help local police and fire departments as well.” 

Libertarian Bob Walsh, however, was frank in detailing a different approach.

“There should not be another relief bill,” Walsh said. “This isn’t a flash in the pan pandemic. This is going to be with us for two to five years at least. Businesses that relied on crowds aren’t going to make it. That’s just how it is.”

Dismantling the Affordable Care Act?

With Trump-nominated Amy Coney Barrett on the verge of being confirmed to the Supreme Court, the issue of the Affordable Care Act has taken center stage, with Republicans wanting to repeal it, and Democrats pushing to keep it. In New Mexico, too, the issue falls along party lines.

“This act is not good enough,” Ronchetti said. “Everything is getting more expensive and the care is getting worse. We need to replace the Affordable Care Act with a bipartisan bill.”

Alluding to his personal experience with the ACA, Ronchetti explained why he’s vehemently opposed to the act. 

“I’m on it, my daughter is on it and she has a pre-existing condition, which isn’t covered under the ACA,” Ronchetti said. “We have to protect pre-existing conditions and Medicare and Medicaid. We have to fit people with plans and lower prescription costs. These things can be done.” 

Meanwhile, career Democrat Luján continued his support of the ACA in rebuttal. 

“It is dangerous to repeal the ACA,” Luján said. “There are coverages in there for pre-existing conditions. If the Act gets repealed, then those coverages go away.”

Luján’s support of the ACA is bolstered by a conviction that a Republican alternative wouldn’t be adequate. 

“The Republicans’ plan is to raise rates and impose a tax on those who are above age 55,” Luján said. “There are tweaks that need to be done to the Act. Surprise billing needs to be fixed. We need to get rid of short-term plans, something that President Trump loves. And we need to reduce prescription prices. All of these things the Republicans refuse to bring up and fix on a bipartisan basis.”

Climate Change Affecting New Mexico?

With New Mexico having thousands of energy industry jobs, the topic of climate change and how to combat was another point of contention in the televised debate. 

“Under both President Obama and President Trump, their Department of Defense said that climate crisis is an existential threat to our national security,” Luján said. “The United States needs to take a step forward in dealing with this issue. That means going back to the Paris Accord. We need to pass legislation to reduce pollution and emissions. And we need someone at the top that will not deny what is taking place.” 

“The question needs to be which way to address the issue,” Ronchetti said. “We should do it through innovation. That means carbon capture, geothermal, and small modular nuclear reactors. All of these will help New Mexico keep our 134,000 energy jobs. We don’t need regulation. Regulation will destroy our energy industry.” 

Election day approaching

In the latest campaign finance report (shown in the graph below) Luján boasts a wide margin in both money raised and spent. Campaign finance reports show much of Lujan’s money has been raised from out-of-state PACs, while Ronchetti has benefited chiefly from the contributions of oil and gas corporations.

In the final run-up to election day, November 3, Ronchetti appears to be trailing Lujan. Recent polls featured on FiveThirtyEight show a double-digit lead for Luján over Ronchetti, with Walsh coming in a distant third.

Adam Evarts is a reporter for New Mexico News Port. You can find him on Twitter @adam_evarts19 and @NMNewsPort.